Delivered September 1, 2011
Harvey Perlman, Chancellor
Of the public universities in the Big Ten, we have the smallest enrollment and our graduation rates are below average. If we are to raise the profile of UNL we must grow enrollment and enhance our student's success.
Our enrollment this fall is slightly under 25,000 students. We will have experienced five solid years of growth from the 22,000 students we reported just five years ago. Our average ACT scores of entering classes remain at a high point for the university as does the diversity of our student body.
Can we continue to grow? The demographics of Nebraska, with declining numbers of high school graduates, presents a challenge. However, our increasing attractiveness to non-resident students and international students and our Big Ten status presents an opportunity.
Our physical capacity for growth has expanded. The Antelope Valley project has freed several acres of university land from the flood plain for future development. The acquisition of the Textron property added 17 acres and linked the campus to the newly renovated Whittier Research Center. The land for Innovation Campus provides an outlet for some university research facilities to complement the private sector facilities we hope to attract. We also acquired the surplus military property north of campus. The growing vibrancy of downtown Lincoln, the reinvigoration of the P and Q street corridors leading to the Haymarket and the new arena, will energize this community and make it more attractive to prospective students. We believe that the environment is such that we can aspire to become a larger university.
Why should we so aspire? First, and foremost, the world economy has become a race for the attraction of talent. The future of this state depends on its ability to attract young talent to its communities and the university has an important role to play in this effort. Through the engaged leadership of President Milliken, I believe policymakers and increasing numbers of citizens have come to understand the economic potential of the university. Second, scale is not an insignificant factor in our ability to compete with our colleagues in the Big Ten or in this region. I am convinced that our opportunities will grow exponentially with a growth in enrollment. Third, of course, is our recognition that enrollment growth, if properly managed, can increase our resources.
Over the last five to six years we have had an average annual growth of approximately 2.25 percent. This growth resulted from the increasing quality of our undergraduate program, the strong leadership of Dean Alan Cerveny and his admissions staff, and, most importantly, the engagement of the faculty in the recruitment process. We all came to realize it was in our collective self-interest to grow enrollment and this could only be accomplished if everyone made it part of their job description. Many of you did. To move forward, we will need many more of you to contribute. We can not just assume enrollment will grow as evidenced by an essentially flat enrollment this year. Faculty involvement is key. I propose that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln make it a high priority to increase its enrollment by an average of 3 percent over the next six years. By 2017 we should be a university approaching 30,000 students. To do so would give us the scale and resources we need to be competitive.
Our retention and graduation rates are below those of our Regents peers and considerably below the average of the Big Ten. Graduation rates are correlated generally to the academic credentials of the student body and the financial resources they have available to them during their stay at the university. Most of our peer institutions, and particularly those in the Big Ten, draw from larger populations, are more selective in their admissions, and have greater financial aid resources. Given our current circumstances, it could be said that we are meeting expectations.
But meeting expectations is not the standard to which we should aspire. I am confident that if we made an institution-wide commitment to student success, we could be recognized as the land-grant institution that outperformed its predicted success and yet stayed true to its mission of serving the students of Nebraska, including those whose talents and capacities are not yet fully expressed and those who face financial restraints.
Last year our first year retention rate was 84 percent. The average of our Regents peers was 86 percent and the average of the Big Ten was 91 percent. Our six-year graduation rate was 64 percent. The average of our Regents peers was 69 percent and the average of the Big Ten was 79 percent. These numbers often misrepresent what actually occurs in higher education. As we report in the national College Portrait, after four years of enrollment, 88 percent of our entering first-time freshmen either have graduated from UNL, are still enrolled at UNL or have enrolled or graduated at another postsecondary institution. And, while our six-year graduation rate is just over 64 percent, after the 6th year we see that approximately 10 percent more graduated from another postsecondary institution and about another 10 percent are still enrolled at UNL or elsewhere.
The real problem we face is that our students are taking too long to graduate. The term "life-long learning" was not intended to describe an undergraduate education. We serve our students best, particularly those floundering in the wilderness of indecision, if we provide gentle but increasingly firm pressure to finish up and if we array our student services to make this possible.
Not every student will or should graduate in four years. Some degree programs are longer. Participation in internships and study abroad programs inevitably extend the undergraduate period. But this university should adopt as a high priority, the increase in our retention rate and the shortening of the time to degree.
If we are to grow enrollment for all of the good reasons I suggested, it will be easier to keep the students we recruit then to recruit new ones. Enhancing retention and graduation rates relates directly to enrollment growth.
Over the summer we interacted with consultants and were able to benchmark our own retention activities against our Big Ten peers. We are exploring new technologies that will greatly assist faculty and advisers to identify students at risk. Senior Vice Chancellor Weissinger has structured her office to lead this effort. Vice Chancellor Franco's units are prepared to offer the required support. Most importantly, we will need increased attention and engagement by faculty and staff to achieve this objective. Over the next six years we should increase our six-year graduation rate by an average of at least 1 percent per year. Our current six-year graduation rate is 64 percent. If we increased this by 1 percent per year, by 2017 we would achieve a 70 percent rate which would put us at the average of our peers and far exceed what is expected of us. We can accomplish this objective without changing our admissions standards or decreasing access to the university.
We will need to make investments, adapt new management tools for delivering a dependable and efficient curriculum, and increase the monitoring of student achievement to identify those students who are at risk.
The P-16 Initiative led by Governor Heineman and President Milliken has recommended universities make an effort to constrain their graduation requirements to 120 credit hours. The state colleges have already adopted that policy and it is likely our Board of Regents will as well. I am asking every undergraduate college to adopt this standard. At UNL the College of Business Administration has already moved to a 120-credit-hour requirement and several programs in the College of Education and Human Sciences have done the same. For the class that enters the university in the Fall of 2012, every undergraduate major should require no more than 120 credit hours for graduation, unless the program can demonstrate that accrediting or other externally imposed requirements make that impossible.
In addition to shortening the time it takes to graduate, a 120-hour curriculum should create additional teaching capacity that will help us achieve our enrollment objectives. It also opens up opportunities for carefully crafted masters programs that can be completed within a total five- or six-year period. We should embrace the reality that a master's degree is increasingly becoming an important credential in today's economy.
I am not unmindful that the enrollment and student success goals I have outlined will place additional burdens on faculty and our investment in faculty must be enhanced. While the mix of persons engaged in the teaching enterprise has changed, at a major research university a sufficiently large and vibrant tenured track faculty remains essential. Accordingly, I propose that we pursue over the next six years an increase in tenure track faculty to 1,300, an increase of 160 faculty members, which on average is a growth rate of 2.25 percent per year. We must pursue a corresponding increase in professors of practice, lecturers, professional staff and support infrastructure to accommodate our enrollment growth. These new faculty and instructional resources will be allocated to colleges that contribute effectively to our enrollment and retention goals and to academic units that host the campus's most successful research, scholarship and creative activity. Our intention is to create an environment in which every academic unit can move forward if they are actively engaged in our enrollment, retention, and research goals.